Asmat shields

Shield: jamasj

War shields count as one of the most impressive creations
of the artists of ASMAT.

Shields are used in battle as physical protection against arrows and spears but their greatest power and threatening quality comes through the ancestors symbolized on the shields. The dead person after which a shield is named bestows onto the carriet the strength, the courage and the will to fight. The enemy will be so intimidated by the sight of the shield and will be so startled that his onlv chance of escape will be through flight. The possibilitv that the enemy has the same or nearly the same motif on his own shield does not seem to distract from the emanations of his shield.

Asmat craving a shield

Only certain artists (called, “wow cescu ipit”) can carve symbols into shields. Both the artist and the carved symbol can contain such strength, power, and respect that they are feared in other villages or even other groups. The wow cescu ipit, create the shields according to standards that were set by the ancestral spirits.

The artists carve anthropomorphic reliefs and symbols on their shields. The designs are either painted with red pigments on a white background or white pigment on a red background. They symbol is then outlined in black. In most Asmat areas the white kaolin pigment is created by grinding roasted shells, except in areas along the reaches of the river where mussels are rare. The red color can be obtained either by baked red clay or from the juice of wild berries and the bark of the wase tree. The black pigments is composed of charcoal.

cutting of a mangrove root for a shield

The Asmat carve their shields from the buttress-like roots and/or trunks of mangrove trees. The soft mangrove wood is well suited to be processed with tools made of stone, bone, and shell. In former times, the Asmat procured steel nails, which had washed ashore from shipwrecks. They pounded the end of the nails flat with a stone and turned them into chisels to use as carving tools. Later, after contact with the West, the Asmat received and used steel axes, knives, and chisels.

The artists carve the shield and handle from a single piece of wood. The handle consists either of a short, vertical ridge or a long ridge, which is broader and is thicker in the middle and has a hollow or three finger holes.

Shields are also worn on ritual occasions and placed at doorways to ward off unwanted intruders. Ritual shields can also serve to identify the spirit of a deceased person at  the Ahnenmaskenfest and are considerably smaller than battle-shields. It is not true that these were made to sell to foreigners so they could fit nicely into a suitcase.

Brazza warrior with shield